Landscape as archive

Three wars are particularly visible in the south-west of England. There are numerous landmarks associated with the Napoleonic Wars – defences and gun emplacements, but also less obvious ones such as a wharf/embankment constructed by prisoners of war, and a park reported to be the burial site of several hundred French prisoners. The English Civil War also pops up regularly: Fairfax stayed here; this is where he and Cromwell met to strategise; these are key battle sites. The massive citadel at Plymouth nods in its direction, too. Built shortly after the Restoration, it reportedly had guns facing the town, a pointed acknowledgement of Plymouth’s staunch support of the Parliamentarians.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the Second World War also exerts a presence. The unassuming concrete ‘hards’ at Torquay (above) were made to help in loading craft for the Normandy landings; further along the coast, at Slapton Sands (below), there are memorials to the members of the armed forces who died in a rehearsal for the landings, as well as to the local people who agreed to be shifted from their homes and farms in order for training to be conducted there.

One of the largest ‘landmarks’ of the war in the area is the city of Plymouth itself. Much of the central shopping and business area was razed during the Blitz, and replaced at speed in order to boost morale after the war. The intention appears to have been to create a people-friendly space – blocks of low-rise buildings surrounded by wide, pedestrian-only streets and squares (which do, in fact, allow for large-scale gatherings – for example, communal viewings of Wimbledon finals or the Royal Wedding on a giant TV screen). They nonetheless feel somewhat over-determined, monochrome, and under-inhabited. At every visit, it was hard not to think of Christchurch, and what form rebuilding might take there.

Robert Graves lived in Galmpton for much of the war. His house was marked by one of three poetry-related ‘plaques’ I saw on the south-west coast. The other two were on a building reputed to have been Keats’s lodgings in Teignmouth – where he looked after his brother, Tom – and a hotel in Torquay where Elizabeth Barrett lived for an extended period in the hope of improving her health (at the bay, near the hards). The author who is most prominently celebrated in the area is a local, Agatha Christie. One of the more unusual tributes to her is in Torre Abbey’s gardens – a collection of plants associated with poisons and potions which appear in her work.